A few weeks ago we pricked out some seedlings from seed trays and placed them into cell trays, we did at our kitchen table, a nice cup of tea beside us, some music on the radio and we ended up with a lovely tray of chilli seedlings to grow on, on our windowsill. They've been watered, taken off the windowsill on very hot days, and generally cossetted, cared for and sometimes cuddled. They've had an easy life but that compost is now full of roots and if we pick the tray up you will see that some of those white roots are poking out the bottom of the tray. That means you can do one of two things, (a) learn how to pot on, or; (b) ignore the roots until your entire windowsill, house, dog, cat and radio are consumed by them. Let's go with (a).
Here's our tray of chili plug plants, they're not seedlings anymore because they have true leaves. True leaves are the genuine leaves of the plant. They are what the plant look like and not some come on as in 'I am genuine about being a chilli plant, just for you'. That would be creepy. No, true leaves are that point in the growing cycle when you realise that what you thought were courgettes turn out to be tomatoes. This happens. This happens because we have forgotten to clearly label our seeds, our seed trays and our bottles of water. It didn't smell of anything. That would be vodka. You are warned never to sow seeds drunk. Good chance you will find something under a gooseberry bush. The skill of potting on is to remember not to go too large with the next pot. What we mean by this can be seen in the photo below, we are going from one size of cell tray to one slightly larger. We are not going from a small cell tray to a bathtub. Why? Well, pricking out and potting on is major shock to a plant, just like that moment you try to squeeze into jeans that fitted you when you were eighteen and your flummoxed why they don't fit anymore. Don't worry, have some cake and a cup of tea, they are nasty jeans and it's not your fault, we all know size 12 in 1987 is not the same size 12 in 2016. They lie to us. Anyway, back to potting on, placing a plant that has been loved and cared for in a small cell tray into a larger cell tray will stress it out. It will also mean that the roots will go into overdrive to fill the space and guess what? The foliage, everything above ground, will struggle to keep up. It will become a tug of war between the green stuff on top and the white stuff below, and it will just get messy and then lawyers will get involved and they'll separate and will anyone think about the soil?! That's how you get flustered when potting on, thinking too big, too soon, turn the radio on, reach for cake.
So, we are going a size bigger, we all know that feeling after forty. The question is: how do you get those plug plants out of the cell trays? The answer to that is simple, it's called your index finger and for many years you have been using it to poke your smartphone, your television remote and your husband in the ribs. Now you will use it to poke the bottom of the cell tray, pushing the cell, the roots and the plant up into the air until they achieve freedom! The fiddly bit is then taking hold of the plant, it should have a good root ball - everything with soil around it - and you can hold this part gently. They always say gardeners make the best lovers, we know when to be gentle but also know that sometimes we all have to muck in together. You will have a flustered face now because you are holding your first ever plug plant, isn't she a beauty? And then the root ball starts to crumble, that wasn't expected and you're trying to keep hold of it and the tray, and your cake and why the hell did you start this? Wouldn't it have been easier to buy them from a garden centre?! Wash your mouth out with soapy water and sit at the foot of the stairs. Root balls sometimes crumble, not always but if you have grown in seed compost, then there is a good chance they will, just put the plant down gently as we did below. Take a deep breath, have a drink of tea.
Get your new cell tray, which should be a little bigger, a little deeper than your plug plant and put the plant in the cell. Feels good. Feels real good. Now comes the problem of getting all that new compost around this new plant. You have to face facts now, this is not a job to do on the kitchen table, it isn't even a job to do on newspaper, this is an outdoor kind of job or if you want to invest in one, a job to do on a potting bench. Today though we are doing it outdoors in our front garden. If you are doing the same, have a hand brush and shovel to hand. This is where is gets messy, and appeals to the kid in all of us, grab a handful of the new compost and trickle around the new plant, filling in any holes until the cell is full. Yes, there's compost all over the place but you can use the hand brush after we have finished and no one will know, unlike if you'd done it at the kitchen table and got it on the tablecloth. Gently firm the compost around the plug plant with your fingers and give the side of the tray a gentle tap with the palm of your hand. A gentle tap! We don't want to whack it across the garden hitting a squirrel who ricochets off your car into the oncoming path of a group of ramblers.
You can see above the before, where there are no squirrels and the root ball that was crumbling has collapsed into the new cell, and below the new compost around that plug plant. Your plug plant will get bigger, much bigger, and then we'll have to pot it on, again. We know, we know, you didn't think gardening was all about potting on and it isn't, it's mainly about eating and cake.
Finally, you have your first tray of small plants. They're wonderful, you take a photo of them and put it up on Facebook or Instagram, on Twitter you coin the phrase #plantporn and your friends stop talking to you. Yes, you are a gardener and this is your world.
Before, you go off and announce to social media that you are the next Charlie Titchmarsh (yes, you have confused Dimmock with Alan - and get well soon Alan, gallstones are a swine after fish and chips) you will have noticed that your seed tray now looks like a teenager's face with a bad case of acne.
It takes less than a minute to enjoy what we call the reverse experience of bubble wrap. Take that finger again and poke it into the cells from the opposite side, forcing them back into shape until they look like this.
You can share that photo on social media and ask people to guess what it is, they won't, not saying that they will guess wrong, they just won't guess. They're all too busy looking a Kim Kardashian's garden. Finally, you should give your new plants a good watering, it'll make them happy and it is the final step in any pricking out, potting on or planting into the ground. After that, give yourself a good water, hold your cup of tea up to the air and toast a job well done.